As a Celtic fan in my mid- twenties, one of my favourite footballing memories is of the night John Hartson smashed an absolute rocket of a shot past a despairing Jerzy Dudek at Anfield to put the seal on a brilliant UEFA Cup victory. Fans of a slightly older vintage than myself hold the 1970 European Cup victory over Leeds in front of 136505 spectators in similar regard. For Rangers supporters, once again Leeds were the opposition in a genuine ‘Battle of Britain’ during the 92-93 season, the Scots were victorious and the images and emotions from that tie are forever ingrained in the conscience of the Rangers support.
Scottish clubs have more often than not, emerged victorious from cross border skirmishes. The Scottish mentality ensures that these victories are both savoured and celebrated, in fact the only time Scottish football fans ever come close to uniting as one and backing their traditional rivals is when the opposition is from south of Hadrians Wall (and I don’t mean Berwick Rangers).
On Thursday evening the latest instalment of the ‘Battle of Britain’ series took place at Tynecastle. In the maroon corner, representing the SPL, stood Heart of Midlothian, in the white corner we had Tottenham Hotspur of the EPL. I shall extend my use of a boxing analogy to say that if the referee could have stopped it he would have. It was probably the finest example of one team outclassing another in every area of the pitch I have ever seen. The 0-5 scoreline, if anything flattered the Scottish side.
Those of us who had dreamed of the glamorous visitors from down south being sent home, if not vanquished then at least with pride wounded were left crestfallen. Many “experts” had predicted a tough time for Spurs, and expressed surprise at the ease of victory. The question is though, should the fact that ‘the best of the rest’ from England’s top division are so far ahead of their Scottish equivalent be a surprise to anyone but the most blinkered of supporters?
If I was informed that Bill Gates has a bigger television in his living room than I do I would not feel surprise, it would make perfect sense, he’s minted and I’m skint. He can afford material extravagancies while I cannot. The EPL is far stronger, far superior to the SPL purely because it has the money to buy expensive trinkets.
Gareth Bale, the Spurs left winger is valued at £40m and is often (rather generously) described as a genuinely world class player, he is in monetary terms the most valuable player in their side. His opposite number at Hearts is also his team’s biggest on-field financial asset, but while Bale would command an astronomical fee, Andrew Driver could probably be purchased for something in the region of £2m.
The thing is though, the two leagues actually share the same problems, the lack of young players making the move from academy, to first team, to national honours is of equal concern either side of the border. Administration is a genuine issue for both EPL and SPL clubs. You could also throw in the ownership and running of clubs by some suspect individuals and the dwindling of match day attendances.
If you are being harsh (and its Monday so I’m going to be) you could say both the EPL and SPL are turds, the only difference being, in England their turd is more aesthetically pleasing having been polished with the Sky Sports billions.
If the SPL continues on its current path, the days of sending the English home ‘tae think again’ are over. The financial gulf is now too prohibitive to ever be bridged. If Scotland could somehow make its club game more competitive and focus on developing home-grown talent then there is some hope that those days could one day return. Until then it should be no surprise when English teams, who can afford to shop at Harrods, outclass Scottish sides whose budgets only stretch to the Asda value range.
Back to domestic matters, and Celtic fans went into this weekend dreaming of a 5 point lead over their Glasgow rivals, however Rangers produced their most impressive display of the fledgling McCoist reign resulting in a 3-0 win at Fir Park, while Celtic to the fury of their manager, missed yet another penalty and numerous other chances before going down 1-0 to St Johnstone. A hoped for 5 point cushion has become a 1 point deficit.
After their European exploits, Hearts will probably be satisfied with their 0-0 draw at Kilmarnock. Dundee United were surprisingly beaten 1-0 at home by Dunfermline, who have made an impressive start to their return to the top division. St Mirren reinforced the belief that Danny Lennon’s men have made real progress this year with a 2-1 win at Easter Road. Aberdeen finally managed to put the ball in the oppositions net (twice!) and were rewarded with the 3 points in their Pittodrie clash with Inverness Caley.
Mid-week sees the second legs of the Europa League qualifiers take place. For what it’s worth I expect Rangers to go through relatively comfortably, Celtic are surely in for a nervy night in Switzerland but I think they may just squeeze through (as long as it doesn’t go to penalties), I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Hearts are going out.